LONDON (Reuters) - Far-right leader Nick Griffin denied on Thursday he was a Nazi during a television debate which provoked political uproar, as police scuffled with anti-racist demonstrators outside the studio.
The first appearance by a British National Party leader on the BBC's flagship "Question Time" political programme, which regularly attracts three million viewers, divided British society.
Anti-racism groups and some politicians argued that the BNP should not be given a platform on the publicly-funded BBC while others backed the invitation to Griffin on free speech grounds.
Griffin, whose party wants a halt to immigration and Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, was quizzed by fellow panellists and members of the studio audience about comments he had made about World War Two and the Nazi Holocaust.
"I am not a Nazi, I never have been," he said.
British Nazis "loathe me because I have brought the BNP from being frankly an anti-semitic and racist organisation to being the only political party which in the clashes between Israel and Gaza stood full square behind Israel's right to deal with Hamas terrorists," he said.
Asked if he had ever denied the Holocaust, Griffin did not answer directly, saying only: "I do not have a conviction for Holocaust denial."
Some 500 demonstrators, waving placards reading "Stop the Fascist BNP" and shouting "Smash the BNP," protested outside the BBC complex in West London.
Before the debate they surged through a security barrier, breaking through a line of yellow-jacketed police officers, and a handful burst into the BBC building. Police said six people were arrested and three police officers were hurt.
ATTACKED BY AUDIENCE
Griffin, who shared the panel with members of the mainstream political parties, looked flustered as he was attacked by members of the audience.
One audience member suggested he should be sent to the South Pole. "It's a colourless landscape, it will suit you fine."
A black audience member accused him of poisoning the minds of British people.
In June, Griffin and another BNP member won seats in the European Parliament elections, a first for the party which got more than 900,000 votes, six percent of the total.
The party, which advocates voluntary repatriation of immigrants, has won support in urban areas among a working class suffering through a deep recession and competing for jobs and services with immigrants.
It has no seats in the national parliament but will field hundreds of candidates in a general election due by next June.
Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC, defended the decision to invite Griffin, saying it was based purely on support for the BNP at the ballot box in recent elections and that it was up to politicians to bar parties.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the choice of panellists was a matter for the BBC but added that he thought Griffin's appearance would backfire on the right-wing party.
"At every point, I believe we have got a duty to expose the BNP for what are racist and sectarian politics," Brown told a local radio station on a visit to northern England.
Some political commentators have noted that Jean-Marie Le Pen, veteran leader of France's far-right National Front, used his television debut on a similar French political show in 1984 to bolster support and recognition.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw, a heavyweight in the Labour Party, took part in the debate with Griffin, reversing Labour's previous refusal to share a platform with the extreme right.